The teenagers Robert Duran spotted at the local pizza parlor were gathered around a table on a Friday night, but they weren't talking or joking; they were staring down at their cellphones.
He's seen it before. A communications professor at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., Duran often arrives at a class to find 20 students silently texting in the dark — they're so busy with their phones that they haven't even bothered to turn on the lights. And when he holds office hours, fewer students drop by for a little one-on-one conversation, advice or mentoring.
"Students seem to have difficulty just engaging in a face-to-face interaction," he said. "And I don't even mean normal eye contact. I mean engaging in an exchange. There are some fundamental skills they just don't have."
Employers, too, say they've seen evidence of declining skills in the workplace.
At a time when digital technology is increasingly allowing Americans — young and old — to bypass actual conversation, some experts worry we're losing valuable communication skills. Or maybe we're even failing to acquire them in the first place.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other," wants conversation to become a higher priority.
The good news is conversation is a skill that can be explained, practiced and acquired. And those who make the effort can reap a wide range of rewards: richer personal relationships, more interesting interactions, better job performance and less stress at parties and work events.
"It's not rocket science, and it's not something that's outdated," said Margaret Shepherd, author of "The Art of Civilized Conversation: A Guide to Expressing Yourself With Style and Grace." "I'm not necessarily against all the new ways to communicate, but I feel I have to speak up and advocate, yes, [communicating] face to face and out loud, and following certain rules of conversation, is really still worth the time."
Greeting, talk, finish
Shepherd breaks conversation into three basic parts: the greeting, talk and finish.
The greeting is fairly simple: "Hi, I'm Alison. Nice to meet you." Or, if you've met before, "Good to see you" or "Nice to see you again."
Don't wait for the perfect icebreaker to occur to you, said Debra Fine, author of "Beyond Texting: The Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers." You can just say hello and ask a genuine question: "Great shoes. Where did you get them?" If inspiration fails, Shepherd suggests a bright take on an old favorite, such as, "Can you believe this weather?"
A conversation is a volley, Fine said, so it's good to be prepared with a simple one-sentence answer to questions such as "How are you?" and "How was your trip?" Instead of saying "OK" or "Fine," you might say, "Good, I finally managed to get a run in this morning" or "I read a good murder mystery on the plane." This gives the other person something to respond to ("Really? I run," or "Do you like John Grisham?").
When meeting people, try to avoid negative pronouncements, moping and self-pity, Shepherd said. And don't get too personal too fast.
She likes to see an initial conversation proceed from pleasantries ("Haven't I seen you at my kid's soccer games?") to an exchange of facts ("Yes, I've been coaching for three years.") to an exchange of opinions about the facts ("It's great that everyone gets a chance to play."). If you're so inclined, you can go on to share your feelings about the facts ("I was upset to hear that they're having competitive tryouts next year.").
Shepherd was at a dinner party with a woman who kept saying how tired she was, typically a conversational nonstarter. But when Shepherd asked why she was tired, she learned that the woman was teaching at Harvard and Stanford — at the same time — and making the bicoastal commute twice a week. That was interesting information and good fodder for a conversation about the nuts and bolts of the commute, why the woman signed on for it and what she teaches.
When you're ready to end a conversation, you can give the person a hint that you will be moving on, Fine suggests: "It's been great hearing about your trip," or "It's been great talking to you."
Shepherd said there's nothing wrong with a direct approach: "I've got to let you go" or "I have to talk to a couple more people." At a party, 10 minutes is plenty of time to spend with someone, she said, and you can avoid awkwardness by taking the initiative when a conversation is reaching its natural conclusion.
"Probably [the other person] is feeling the same way," Shepherd said.
Here are tips from Fine:
• Dig deeper. "How are you?" is more of a greeting than a real question. If you really want to know, ask a more specific question, such as "How was your weekend?" or "How's the new project going?"
• Try a compliment. Genuine praise puts people at ease.
• Remember that information fuels conversation. If someone asks a question, disclose something the other person can work with.
• Bypass questions that are likely to elicit one-word answers, such as "Did you have a good vacation?" Try open-ended questions, such as "What did you do on vacation?"
• Look around. A diploma on the wall, a cat bed on the floor or a photo on the desk can be good fodder.